Christmas Eve: The Next Chapter
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
—Matthew 2:1-6 (read Matthew 2)
When our children were little, we found the celebration of Christmas to be incredibly stressful.
Of course, everyone has extra stress during the holiday frenzy, but we own a family-run bookstore, and working in retail during December presents unusual pressures for anyone wanting to remember the real reason for the season. We were hectic—serving customers, working with vendors, ordering merchandise, crunching numbers, keeping very long hours—right up to suppertime on Christmas Eve.
We longed for Advent to be a slower time of care and reflection. We wanted to resist the commercialization of Christmas. Yet almost every day, in the middle of customer service and frantic business situations, we’d catch ourselves and ask, “Whose birthday is it, anyway?”
Our family devotions were hit and miss since we worked late with extended holiday hours. Still, we tried, having little services with Advent songs, candles surrounded by wreaths of pungent pine, and a large-size crèche set the children could handle. We moved Mary and Joseph (most nights) closer and closer to the stable.
We hardly had time for our own holiday shopping and were glad for department stores that were open all night long. Yes, we wanted to be frugal, but keeping Christ in Christmas didn’t keep us out of the malls entirely. It was dicey and stressful to say the least, spending our days in the shop and many nights in the stores.
And then we discovered Epiphany.
In a stroke of inspiration, we decided to postpone our family gift exchange until the 12th Day of Christmas. Like their little Jewish friends with their ongoing gift-giving tradition of Hanukkah, our kids took to it well—it meant more gifts, more anticipation, and more partying, even after school started up again. And it bought us some time to plan and celebrate after the retail rush of Christmas and our day-after-Christmas sales had peaked.
We kept the tree up and kept lighting the candles and kept moving the crèche set characters all over the living room. We learned about the symbols behind the corny “12 Days of Christmas” song. Who knew how Christ-centered it was? We also considered the meaning of the Wise Men’s gifts. Gold is a royal gift, fit for a Baby King. Frankincense was used in worship, a uniquely religious spice, with a spiritual aroma that honors Divinity. And myrrh? It was an ancient embalming fluid, if you will—a burial spice, foreboding death and grief. What a sad gift to give as a baby present, we thought.
The three gifts offer a way to consider the ultimate point of Christ’s glorious Christmas incarnation—He comes as King to establish a Kingdom that only God Himself could bring. And He does so through sacrificial death.
It’s a hard conversation to have about the lovely little babe in the straw, I’ll admit, but the sour notes of “We Three Kings” makes it easier. The hope of redemptive restoration and the message of God’s reconciliation are integrally tied to the death of Jesus.
Our family’s practical postponement of Christmas—what we now understand as a liturgically-principled extension of the season, necessary to take in the fullness of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle—opened the door to talk about other hard stuff, too.
What do we do with the Biblical material that follows the lovely story of the manger, shepherds, and angels singing out glory and peace? The brave astronomers from the East do not report back to Herod as they were instructed, and when Herod learns of their betrayal, he orders what is sometimes called “the slaughter of the innocents.” As Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee to Egypt as refugees, a cry of weeping is heard in the land, and the laments of Hebrew poetry are appropriated to mourn this awful Middle Eastern genocide.
We often wish to just skip this part of the story, preferring to bask in the white glow of holiday lights as we sip hot chocolate.
But the story told in Matthew 2 is a harsh reminder of what is at stake in Jesus’ incarnation—namely, the claim that He is Lord.
The powers of this world do not want to yield their authority, and they will not do so quietly. As we learn throughout the unfolding drama of the Biblical story, the kingdoms of this world are often aligned against the ways of God. Civil disobedience on the part of the Wise Men and the escape of the Holy family to Egypt hearkens back to the brave midwives who floated Moses down the Nile to escape the rage of the violent King. (Oh, the irony.)
Our family discovered great meaning in reflecting year after year on the goodness of the gifts of the Wise Men and the extraordinary nature of Christ’s incarnation as the Divine King. While talking about Christ’s Kingship raised tough questions about what it means to be faithful in a world of ugly politics, violence, and genocide, we knew that the Bible does not back away from the realities of our fallen world. Principalities and powers vie for control, and the Baby King calls us to be His agents of reconciliation, Spirit-filled conduits of the peace that passes all understanding.
It is here we encounter the “star of wonder” of “royal beauty bright.”
Yes, extending holiday celebrations for the full 12 Days of Christmas and making a big, gift-giving deal out of Epiphany has great practical merit—you can buy your Christmas gifts during the after-Christmas sales and you can delay your Christmas party planning until after New Year’s, when things are a bit less hectic. But more importantly, it has great theological merit.
There is so very much here in this post-Christmas story, it’s no wonder the church over the ages needed more than a week in December to honor it.
Byron Borger, along with his wife, Beth, own and operate Hearts & Minds, an independent Christian bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, which they have run for 35 years. Before opening their bookstore, they worked in campus ministry for the CCO in McKeesport and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.